The explosion ripped through the refinery.
A sudden, hot eruption of sound overwhelmed Kwazi Jabari, drowning the white noise of tools and machines and the small talk of routine. The regolith walls of Mars’s underground tunnels shook; the artificial gravity hiccupped. Rock and metal and human flesh smashed together. Bone, as always, surrendered to physics.
The first shockwaves passed. It was like a giant was running through the tunnels, smaller blasts like footsteps rumbling away deeper, ancient cannons firing in quick succession, one after the other against an enemy battle line. Dust and twisted metal rained down around Kwazi. He wrapped his arms around his head for protection. Stunned oblivion wrapped around him. The dull thud of the giant’s footsteps echoed in the dusty rock beneath his cheek.
Kwazi’s awareness began to return. The red emergency lights flashed, casting the familiar lines of Extraction Station 16 in the foreign shadows and broken angles of wrecked machinery. Dust floated everywhere, visible currents of ruddy air stirred by the atmo recyclers.
Blinking hard, Kwazi tried to raise himself from the ground. The artificial gravity was unstable, making his stomach heave. His heart thudded like one of the sluice pumps, swelling and receding in his head. A single, piercing note stabbed inward from his ears. His right arm hurt from a long, red gash along his forearm. Blood flowed freely. A familiar thing among chaos, it was sort of hypnotizing, his own blood. His eyelids felt lazy, heavy.
Kwazi shook his head to clear it, grabbing on to the pain that followed, a lifeline to awareness. He ripped the torn sleeve free of his uniform, wrapped it twice just below his elbow, and tied it off. The triage had come from muscle memory, something taught to him by a grandfather who’d had little patience for a grandson who’d rather be doing anything else than learning first aid. The pain in his forearm faded to a dull throb, and Kwazi wiped the grit from his eyes. He could hear sounds beyond his own skull again.
Deeper inside the facility, past a score of extraction stations like his, the giant’s footsteps were awkward, the stumbling destruction of a drunken goliath. There was the screech of machinery bent and broken, still trying to work, thrashing itself to pieces. And there were other sounds now.
The sounds of people dying.
Kwazi dragged himself into a kneeling position. He ignored the Martian rock biting into his knees. She’d been working right next to him. They’d been talking about nothing at all and everything, the way future lovers do when they know that’s what they’ll be. Conversation as intimacy, an aphrodisiac of words, the beginnings of mutual exploration.
“I don’t know,” she’d said once she’d accepted his offer for dinner together after shift. “Maybe we could try Polynesian?”
I hate Polynesian, he’d thought. What he’d said was: “That sounds wonderful.”
The facility shook again, the gravity hiccupped again, and Kwazi let the quake pass before attempting his feet. His knees felt made of jelly. Placing one hand against the control panel he’d been working on, Kwazi steadied himself.
He traced his way along the panel. Everything seemed to be where it shouldn’t be. He’d been talking with Amy, checking the chemical composition levels for the leaching process. Optimizing the liquefaction of the metals extracted by his team from Shaft 16. A process he’d done with Amy a hundred times while the rest of Team 16 pulled the rocks from the tunnel. Aika and Mikel on the laser drills, Max and Beren moving the cuts from the holes to the conveyor belts. And he and Amy, the crew’s exochemists, keeping everything tweaked to peak performance.
The air processors had made progress. The red haze was thinning, the fog clearing as Kwazi’s mind had started to clear. A harsh Klaxon sounded. The hole in the refinery’s protective dome was breached. Atmosphere was leaking to the Martian surface.
Kwazi’s heart began to race again. Where was she? They’d been standing together at the control panel. How much farther could—
A low moan stopped him breathing. He followed it, straining to hear through the noise.
She lay on her side on the rough ground, one hand grasping at nothing. The top knot of her blonde hair hung loose. Kwazi knelt beside her, took her hand in his. He should evacuate her, get her to safety. And the rest of the team…
The strident Klaxon flooded the tunnels. Particulate matter in the air funneled upward with a reddish tail toward the surface.
Next to Kwazi, Amanda Topulos groaned. Ignorance of the right thing to do paralyzed him, wrestling with the certain knowledge that doing nothing was the worst of bad choices. He needed to act, to do something, or Amy might die. He might die. The other four members of their crew-family might die.
Vac-suits. The voice of Qinlao Manufacturing’s safety trainer told Kwazi to help himself first, then help others. You can’t help anyone else if you’re dead.
He needed to get into a vac-suit, then get Amy into one. And then he’d find the others.
Kwazi forced himself to release Amy’s hand, which flicked at the air again, a reflex. She seemed to be begging him to stay.
Leaving a silent prayer behind, a ward to watch over her, Kwazi staggered against the shifting gravity toward Station 16’s emergency locker. Thunder roiled from farther down the line, thrumming the ground. He stumbled over something solid—a human arm holding a tool, a wrench he recognized, stamped T16. The fingers gripping it were African like his.
Kwazi traced the arm to the torso and the primary crushing machine lying over the body. Stepping carefully, he found Max Okafor’s head twisted, his neck hyperextended. Kwazi swallowed hard, pushing down the quick bile of loss in his throat. There was a hard place behind his breastbone, a desire to stop, to process, to mourn.
On Mars, your crew was your family—that’s what QM taught its workers. The safety chief had emphasized it during training, over and over again, along with the meme meant to make it stick: “Family Is Safety at QM.”
Max was dead, but Amy was still alive. Maybe the others were too. He didn’t want to lose them like he’d lost Max. The feeling in his chest morphed from sadness to determination. He wouldn’t lose her.
Kwazi felt his path along the wall until he found the emergency locker. Spitting on the keypad, he wiped the dust off and typed the access code. Gears ground as the panel slid aside, revealing six vac-suits. He slid quickly into one, tested its seals, then grabbed a second one for Amy. He couldn’t carry three more all the way down into Shaft 16. They were too heavy and bulky. So Kwazi detached three rebreathers from the other suits. They wouldn’t protect from vacuum if the breach in the plastisteel dome around the refinery’s entrance gave way, but they’d keep people breathing when the air got too thin. Maybe long enough for the rescue crews to arrive.
Static scratched at him from his helmet.
“Mayday, mayday, this is Crew Sixteen, anyone out there?”
It’d been a long time since Kwazi had worn a vac-suit. He’d worked the Martian mines so long, it took a moment to remember how to engage comms.
“Beren?” he whispered.
There was a pause on the other end. “Jabari? Holy Christ! Aika, it’s Kwazi! I told you we’d be okay!”
Aika was muttering in the background. She sounded odd, more than just distant from Beren’s mic. Kwazi had a sudden impulse to tell them about Max, to let them know that Amy didn’t seem to have serious injuries. They were family. They should know those things—the good and the bad.
“Hey, Kwazi, we’re trapped down here,” Beren said. “We’re behind about twenty tons of rock. Halfway down Shaft Sixteen.”
“Aika is injured but can walk. I’m fine, except for a little red lung from all this dust.”
“Okay.” Maybe he should wait with the news about Max. “Amy’s alive but unconscious. How’s Mikel?”
Another pause. Kwazi wasn’t sure he’d engaged the comms correctly, then remembered they were voice activated.
“He didn’t make it, bro,” Beren said.
A keening began, a primeval sound that wasn’t language. Kwazi thought it was feedback over the channel.
“I know, Aika, I know,” Beren said. “But we’ll do right by Mikel. We just need to get out of here first.”
Kwazi began to move. “I’m coming,” he said, refusing to look at Max’s body as he passed.
“Sending you the specific coordinates,” Beren replied, Aika’s mourning a low murmur of loss in the background.
Aika and Mikel had been lovers since before he’d joined Team 16. Their relationship had inspired his courage to finally approach Amy. They were professional on shift and playful off. They’d been perfect together, balancing Mikel’s Russian bravado with Aika’s Japanese reserve. Now Mikel was dead and Aika alone. The thought that he might lose Amy forever made Kwazi’s chest ache with the regret of wasted time.
There was a red dusting around her form, outlining her body. Kwazi shook that thought from his head, ignoring the still-pounding pain in his temple. Her restless hand clawed weakly at her throat.
Kwazi hurried his step, glancing at the readouts on his arm. Breathable atmo had fallen by thirty percent. He knelt beside Amy again, gently controlling her hand and fitting the rebreather over her nose and mouth. She resisted it at first. Then as the air began to flow, her struggles calmed. Kwazi held her hand and watched her breathe.
“What’s going on up there, Kwazi?” Beren asked. He sounded bright and forced, despite the itchy background noise in the comms. “You’ve gotten awfully quiet.”
“I’m here. Getting Amy into a suit.” He shook himself from the trance of watching Amy be alive. Kwazi unfurled the second vac-suit next to her, hesitating. If she was injured, he could make it worse by moving her. “Give me a few minutes.”
“We might not have a few minutes, bro,” Beren said, his voice edgy. “We’re losing atmo too fast. If you don’t break those rocks pinning us in—”
“Don’t leave her, Kwazi!” Aika shouted. “You stay right there beside her. Don’t you leave her alone!”
Static and the heavy sound of one pair of coveralls rubbing against another.
“Leave me alone! Just leave me alone!”
“Aika?” Kwazi said, concerned.
The tense flesh of an open hand smacked skin.
“Jesus!” yelled Beren. “Aika, settle down!” More scuffling and exasperation filtered over the fuzzy channel.
“Guys!” Kwazi pulled the second leg of the vac-suit to Amy’s thigh, then lifted her torso up to fold her inside. It was slow work, careful work. “I’m coming, but I can’t just leave Amy here.”
“Stay there! Don’t leave her!”
“Aika, shut up!” Beren was more than angry now; he was scared to death. Scared of death.
Does he really think I’ll leave them buried in a Martian mine shaft?
Kwazi sealed her vac-suit and brought the monitoring system online. A steady one atmo of pressure bloomed inside. Exterior read point-five. It’d dropped another ten percent of nominal in less than a minute. What was happening up top? Why weren’t the seal protocols kicking in?
Kwazi gazed down on Amy, leaned over her. Somehow, with them both behind the plastisteel visors of their vac-suits, it didn’t seem a violation of her space to be so close. He brought his helmet in contact with hers, their visors touching.
“I love you,” he said, knowing the sound carried through the plastisteel. “Don’t leave me alone—forever. Ca va?”
Amy loved it when he spoke French.
“Jabari, for God’s sake, quit dicking around!”
“I can’t leave her, man,” Kwazi said, realizing he’d neglected to mute comms. “The rescue teams are coming. I can’t leave her.”
There was a hissing in his ears.
“You listen to me, noob—”
The screeching tone of the emergency broadcast signal overrode them both.
“Citizen-workers of Facility Twelve, this is Captain Li of Qinlao Faction. We have mobilized multiple rescue teams. Follow standard emergency protocols. Don your vac-suits and shelter in place. Stay off comms—”
“Captain Li! My team is trapped in Shaft Sixteen!” Kwazi heard the frenzied relief in his own voice, tried to rein it back. “Atmosphere is bleeding fast. We have less than half atmo. I’m sending you their location now. We have injured!”
“Whoever the fuck you are, get off comms!” Li blasted back. “Follow my orders and stay put. We have things under control again.”
Kwazi looked around him. Things didn’t seem to be under control. The air was moving faster up the tunnels, the blood-red dust trail racing to the surface. He had the absurd thought that if enough dust clogged the hole in the refinery’s dome, it would act like a plug.
A flood of responses from other teams up and down the line overwhelmed comms. Details of injuries, cries of hope, pleas for rescue.
Kwazi tuned it all out. He’d provided Li with Aika and Beren’s location. He would stay put and watch over Amy, make sure she was one of the first out. She didn’t seem seriously injured, but she hadn’t woken up either. She could have internal injuries, a potential death sentence in low-g because blood couldn’t coagulate, wounds couldn’t heal. He gazed down at Amanda Topulos, admiring his handiwork in keeping her alive, thinking how proud his grandfather would have been. Then the plodding steps of the angry giant marched through the refinery again, this time beginning in the deeper quarters, moving toward the upper tunnels and Shaft 16.
A second round of explosions.